Baltimore’s arts council named a new permanent CEO Tuesday, bookending a monthslong search for a new leader to take the reins of the embattled agency after a tumultuous year.

Rachel D. Graham, currently the director of external relations for the Reginald F. Lewis Museum of Maryland African American History & Culture, will lead the Baltimore Office of Promotion & The Arts, or BOPA, after a unanimous vote by the nonprofit’s board of directors. She will succeed Donna Drew Sawyer, who resigned from the position last January. Film producer and public relations professional Todd Yuhanick had been serving as interim director since June.

Sawyer stepped down after a public spat with Mayor Brandon Scott, who called on her to leave the agency or else risk its funding. The organization contracts with city government to stage several high-profile events, including Artscape, the Baltimore Book Festival, Light City Baltimore and the annual Martin Luther King Jr. Day Parade. It also maintains some city facilities and serves as a resource for local artists.

In an interview Tuesday, Graham said she hopes to refocus the organization’s mission to prop up the arts community.

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“Arts and culture put food on the table for my family, and it’s something I would like to see made important here in the city of Baltimore,” she said.

BOPA struggled to find its footing during the initial years of the coronavirus pandemic and wound up failing to stage Artscape, its marquee event, in 2020, 2021 and 2022. The organization drew the ire of the mayor in 2023 when it said it would not hold the annual Martin Luther King Jr. Day Parade and, under pressure, shifted the blame to the mayor’s office. After the mayor called for Sawyer’s resignation, the city raced to stage the parade in a few days’ time.

Under the joint leadership of Yuhanick and Tonya Miller Hall — a former BOPA executive whom Scott’s office hired last year to work for the city — Artscape, the free outdoor arts festival usually held in the summer, returned this past September but had a whole day of programming canceled due to rain.

The arts council also found itself in the crosshairs last year over other matters, including the board’s decision to grant Sawyer a severance payment worth tens of thousands of dollars and its attempt to trademark Artscape with outside legal counsel and in direct violation of its city contract. At a tense City Council budget hearing last June, council members interrogated former interim CEO and board chair Brian D. Lyles for his decision to serve in both roles concurrently, calling it a potential conflict of interest.

In a statement, current acting chair of BOPA Board of Directors Andrew Chaveas thanked interim CEO Yuhanick for his service and said Graham “brings a wealth of experience and a true passion for the arts to her new role.” The board conducted a national search to find Sawyer’s replacement, according to a Tuesday news release.

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An experienced communications and public relations professional who briefly attended Towson University, Graham previously served as the public information officer of the Family League of Baltimore, a quasi-governmental agency that provides support services to children and families in Baltimore. She also worked for the Neighborhoods Partnership Network and the Harmony Neighborhood Development in New Orleans as well as the Greater Houston Partnership, the city’s economic development arm.

Graham landed at the Lewis Museum in 2022 and said the job resonated with her interest in cultural promotion and African American history. Both her parents worked in the arts, which Graham said exposed her at a young age to the power of performance and cultural diversity.

“I just love the city. I believe in the transformative power of the arts community, and I believe in BOPA,” Graham said.

While she acknowledged the arts council’s mistakes, she said she felt a responsibility to elevate the staff and push the organization to “the next level.”

“Pressure makes diamonds, and sometimes you need that to force you out of the box and look at the situation from a new perspective,” Graham added. “I look forward to this opportunity with folks who are committed to the mission and who understand there is a bright horizon we are working toward.”

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This article has been corrected to reflect that Graham attended but did not graduate from Towson University.

Hallie Miller is a reporter at The Baltimore Banner, where she hopes to dive deep into the city's communities and highlight solutions. She is passionate about engaging readers and using new tools to tell stories. Hallie spent four years at The Baltimore Sun, where she helped lead the organization's medical coverage of the coronavirus pandemic. 

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